6 Places to Get Down in Downtown LA

You’re going to get down, literally.

The continually expanding skyline of downtown Los Angeles viewed through the windshield, driving west across the First Street Bridge. Photo by Douglas de Wet

You’re walking south on Broadway. The address indicates the place is just past Second Street, but there is no sign or entrance in sight. You check the address again. It should be here. All you see is a parking lot. You spot someone toward the back of the lot along a fence in front of the building. You approach. They greet you, smile, ask to see your IDs and say, “Thank you. Have a good time.”

Descending the stairway, glowing with red light, you’re hit by a blast of hot, dry air from a vent. Does this heat represent some kind of literary symbolism? How does it make you feel?

The hallway leading to the entrance of Birds & Bees. Photo by Douglas de Wet

You proceed down a hallway of concrete and brick. Industrial pendant lights above light the way. You reach a yellow door. There is music and laughter. You go in. Your eyes are adjusting. It’s darker than you expect, but the glow of the bar draws you forward. You take a seat. The bartender greets you, pours ice water into frosty metal cups and presents you with menus and says, “Welcome to Birds & Bees. You’re just in time for violet hour.”

As downtown Los Angeles DTLA rises skyward, this notoriously horizontal, sprawling region is gaining more spots with impressive aerial views such as 71Above and Upstairs at the Ace Hotel.

I have inherent bias against rooftop attractions. Many cities have them, but I often don’t feel completely at ease at slick rooftop spots. Maybe it’s my own self-loathing, or some other psychological baggage, but they can feel too fashionable, elitist. Sometimes I just don’t have it in me. Hidden elevators can be a hassle. Plus, views often come at a premium with pumped up prices.

I want to go places that want me. I want to feel welcome. I don’t mind putting in effort, but work with me. I don’t want the staff to treat me like I’m there to serve them.

Well, DTLA’s rebirth is also bringing hidden, underground spots. Not underground as in illegal or out of the mainstream, but places literally below ground, in basements and below street level.

Discovering hidden, underground venues can be thrilling. These subterranean dens often feel more relaxed and comfortable. They stay cool and dark when the temps climb. The anonymous darkness won’t judge the same way a bright rooftop spot might. Hunting the down below ground digs can take some effort, but it’s worth it.

Here are some of downtown’s best spots to get down underground.

Birds & Bees: Best Underground Violet Hour

A bartender adds ice to a mixing glass at Bird & Bees. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Birds & Bees can be downright difficult to find. Entering requires walking through a parking lot, descending a stairway through a layer of hot air, down a corridor, and through a canary yellow door. The search only adds to its appeal.

The yellow door marks the entrance to Birds & Bees. Photo by Douglas de Wet

The vibe is atomic-age chic. Sleek mid­century lines are punctuated by satellite lamps and a groovy suspended fireplace. It’s loungey and comfortable. They boast an excellent roster of classic cocktails and original cocktails, which take their inspiration from the classics. There is no food here, so come before dinner to enjoy their top- notch Violet Hour happy hour, available Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

A classic gin Martini at Birds & Bees. Photo by Douglas de Wet

This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn.

— Bernard DeVoto

For fans of classic cocktails, this one of the very best happy hour menus in DTLA. Try the Classic Gin Martini ($8) or an Old Fashioned ($8). But if you’re feeling dirty, give the Hamm on Rye ($10) a try, a Hamm’s tallboy and a shot of rye whiskey.

L.A. Central Library: Best Underground Spot to Get Smart

Looking up from the depths of the new wing of the Los Angeles Central Library. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Going underground is not all about boozy bliss. If you’ve never visited L.A. Central Library, you are missing out on one of the city’s great treasures. From the outside, you’d never know that much of the library’s collection is actually below street level. And this palace of learning and knowledge is open and welcoming to all.

At one point, the library traded its air rights to neighboring buildings. While the trade allowed the neighbors to build taller buildings, it meant future library expansion would have to go downward.

Learn about the library by going on one of their free, fun and informative docent lead tours. Tours are held daily, 12:30 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Two tours are available on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tours meet outside the gift shop on the ground floor. Reservations are not required.

pskaufman: DTLA’s Best Underground Shoe Store with an Art Gallery

Hand painted pointed boots in slick metallic colors at pskaufman. Photos by Douglas de Wet

At the north end of Werdin Place alley, on the north side of Eighth Street, look for the turquoise sign shaped like a boot. It might not seem like the right place, and there’s no doorman to assure you, but this is the place. Welcome to pskaufman.

Boots in a dusty, distressed finish at underground shoe store, pskaufman. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Part shoe store, part art collection and gallery, this is the place for jewelry, art and especially groovy shoes designed by Paul Kaufman. His designs are “industrial inspired classics.” Think hand painted women’s shoes in bright metallic, substantial men’s boots with hand distressed leather and reptilian textured pointed toes, looking like they might have fangs. Kaufman’s kicks look smart enough for the fashion forward business person but also edgy enough for a style minded punk-rockers with comfort standards and a credit card.

Chic, distressed wingtip inspired kicks with a pronounced heel at pskaufman. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

The decor adds to the experience. Demonic tribal masks glare from atop decorative displays, and colorful woodblock prints by Deerjerk keep watch.

PSKaufman is easily the coolest shoe store I’ve ever been to. It’s almost too cool for me, but there’s no attitude here; it’s a welcoming, fun spot.

Fierce, pointed toe boots with a slightly sinister, reptilian texture at pskaufman. Photo by Douglas de Wet.

Kaufman is often on hand to provide expert assistance. Regular prices may be a bit steep for student budgets, but there are often a few pairs sale priced, and the shoes are extremely well made and should last for many years. My square toed wingtips — which I got on sale — are some of the most comfortable, stylish shoes I’ve ever owned.

A woodblock inspired painting by artist, Bryn Perrott, AKA Deerjerk inside underground shoe store and art gallery, pskaufman in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Douglas de Wet
Artist, Travis Lampe talks art with fans during Mercado Los Olvidados, 2017 at pskaufman. Photos by Douglas de Wet

For a special experience, visit during the annual art show and sale, Mercado Los Olvidados. Many of the participating artists attend the event for questions, signings and photos.

Peking Tavern: Best Underground Whiskey Shot with a Beer Back

The bar at Peking Tavern. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Spending all this time underground is going to make you hungry, so here’s an underground restaurant for you. Head down the stairway near the southeast corner of South Spring and Eighth Street to Peking Tavern. The Tavern puts out reasonably priced Chinese comfort food in a pub-like setting. It’s good spot for drinks and bites that won’t break the bank.

Shots of Red Bush with a back of Singha lager. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Start with their excellent shot and beer combo, a Thai Singha lager for $5 and a shot of Bushmill’s Red Bush Irish whiskey for $2 more, a steal for this neighborhood. Cheers! Their daily happy hour is solid too, $4 bottled beer, $6 cocktails and wine and an appealing variety of sharable dumplings and finger foods from $5 to $6.

Spicy pork dumplings for only $5 during happy hour at Peking Tavern. Photo by Douglas de Wet

The regular menu prices are reasonable as well. The beef roll and veggie roll — both $10 — are a crispy, light pancake filled with either tender braised beef or braised tofu, fresh herbs, and a sweet and tangy sauce.

Cole’s: Best Historic Underground Cocktail and Sandwich

I love Cole’s, so I bent my underground rules to include them. Cole’s is not fully underground, but it is below street level. Its orientation limits sunlight’s reach any time of day. The room is dark, red and well-worn in the best possible way.

Cole’s makes one of the best Old Fashioned cocktails is Los Angeles. Give there pickled egg a try too. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Come here for one of downtown’s best Old Fashioned cocktails — chilled with a perfectly clear, large rock of ice — tasty French dip sammies, gooey mac n’ cheese, spicy pickled eggs and some of the finest bartenders in the city. They have also an excellent weekday happy hour.

The Rhythm Room: Underground Bar for Jazz and Games

The main game room at the Rhythm Room in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Douglas de Wet

For games, live music, food and drinks, check out the recently opened Rhythm Room. Here you’ll find an attractive bi-level design with the barroom on the upper level and a game room on the lower. The game room is filled with pool tables, shuffleboard and table tennis all for a fee. Foosball, chess and darts are complimentary. The game room also has a small stage with regularly scheduled live jazz.

Need to Get Down More?

Casey’s Irish Pub is unpretentious and comfortable. Come here for pints of beer and Jameson picklebacks — a shot of Jameson whiskey with a pickle brine back. I’ve never been to their St. Patrick’s Day celebration, but it’s legendary, taking up the block.

Head to the basement of El Dorado Lofts on Spring Street for the El Dorado. The vibe here is a bit club like. The music pumps a little louder. The diverse crowd is maybe a touch younger, and they’re prepared to stay up later than I am. It’s a solid choice to start, finish or hang for the night, but there’s no food either.

The Edison may be underground, but I might not be quite cool enough for this spot. It’s also more of a club than a bar with velvet rope and a cover charge, both things I tend to avoid, but the atmosphere and decor are pretty great.

So next time you’re downtown, if there’s a line at the elevator going up, why not try going the other direction? Enjoy your underground adventures. Cheers!